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Moivre [De Moivre, Demoivre], Abraham De

1. Dates
Born: Vitry-le-François, Champagne, 26 May 1667
Died: London, 27 Nov. 1754
Dateinfo: Dates Certain
Lifespan: 87
2. Father
Occupation: Physician
A provincial surgeon of modest means.
With that description, I have to list his financial status as unknown. On the one hand, the father was able to have his son educated initially by a tutor and later to send him, at age eleven, to the Protestant academy at Sedan. On the other hand, Walker calls the father a poor surgeon.
3. Nationality
Birth: French
Career: English
Death: English
4. Education
Schooling: Saumur; Paris
Catholic Village School.
Protestant Academy at Sedan, 1678-82.
Studied logic at Saumur, 1682-4.
Collège de Harcourt, Paris, 1684.
Studied mathematics privately in Paris with Ozanam, 1684-5.
There is no mention of a B.A., and I concluded that De Moivre never earned one.
5. Religion
Affiliation: Calvinist
He was a Huguenot and left France as a result of the revocation of the Edict of Nantes.
6. Scientific Disciplines
Primary: Mathematics
De Moivre published his first mathematical paper in the Philosophical Transactions in the early 90's--in all fifteen papers in the Philosophical Transactions. His Doctrine of Chances, 1718, was perhaps the key work in the early history of probability. Miscellanea analytica, 1730. Annuities on Lives, 1725. An important theorem in trigonometry carries his name, and he contributed also to the theory of infinite series and to finite differences.
7. Means of Support
Primary: Schoolmastering, Publishing
De Moivre left France because of the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. He was in England by 1686. He became a tutor of mathematics, and eked out a living from tutoring and from publications. His book on annuities was of great personal importance for this reason. He never succeeded in finding significant patronage. Apparently he always had an accent, and he never lost his love of French literature. He remained an outsider, who failed really to break into English society. He solicited subscriptions to publish Miscellanea analytica and had to delay publication because he did not get enough subscriptions. At the end of his life, he earned moneyk by solving problems of chance at coffee houses.
8. Patronage
Types: Aristrocrat, Scientist
Halley introduced him to the Royal Society.
De Moivre was always looking for patronage, which he never seriously found, and with several others (I think especially of the French mathematician in the Netherlands--Girard, I think--and of Michelini) he illustrates the possible tragic face of the system of patronage. Through Bernoulli he tried to enlist Leibniz's help in securing a university chair on the continent. He dedicated his paper "Mensura sortis," 1711, the seed of the Doctrine of Chances, to Francis Robartes (later the Earl of Radnor), who had suggested the problem to him. He was hoping that Robartes could get him the Lucasian chair.
De Moivre dedicated the Doctrine, 1718, to Newton, who was his friend but never seriously helped him. He dedicated the second edition, 1738, to Lord Carpenter.
He dedicated Annuities on Lives, 1725, to the Earl of Macclesfield.
He dedicated Miscellanea analytica, 1730, to Martin Folkes.
I am listing all of these dedications. I assume that De Moivre received modest gratuities in return for them. As I say, he never got the patronage his ability deserved.
9. Technological Involvement
Type: Applied Mathematics
His Annuities on Lives was a conscious application of his understanding of probabilities to a very practical problem.
10. Scientific Societies
Memberships: Royal Society, Berlin Academy, Russian Academy (St. Petersburg)
Informal Connections: Friendship with Halley beginning in 1692. Intimate friendship with Newton and Nicolas Fatio de Duillier. Correspondence with Jean Bernoulli (which has been published), Varignon, and a number of other mathematicians on the continent.
Royal Society, 1697.
The Berlin Academy of Science, 1735.
Paris Academy des Sciences, 1754.
  1. Dictionary of National Biography (repr., London: Oxford University Press, 1949-50), 13, 563. Helen M Walker, "Abraham De Moivre," Scripta Mathematica, 2 (1934), 316-33.
  2. Ivo Schneider, "Der Mathematiker Abraham De Moivre," Archive for History of Exact Sciences, 5 (1968-9), 177-317.
Compiled by:
Richard S. Westfall
Department of History and Philosophy of Science
Indiana University

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©1995 Al Van Helden
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